Kamala Harris becomes first female vice president

Kamala Harris makes history when she is sworn in as the 49th U.S. vice president on January 20, 2021, becoming the first woman, the first Black American and the first Asian American to occupy the office.

When Harris was chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate in August 2020, the former California senator and attorney general, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, became the third woman to be named on a major political party’s ticket, following Geraldine Ferraro (chosen by Walter Mondale) in 1984 and Sarah Palin (chosen by John McCain) in 2008. Harris made her own presidential bid in the 2020 Democratic Party’s primary before suspending her campaign and endorsing Biden. Together, they defeated incumbents Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

“In many ways, this moment embodies our character as a nation,” Harris said on the evening of her inauguration. “It demonstrates who we are. Even in dark times—we not only dream. We do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be.”

As second in line for the U.S. presidency, Harris has come closer than any woman before her to breaking what Hillary Clinton famously called “the highest, hardest glass ceiling.” 

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Dalip Singh Saund assumes office as the first Asian American and the first Sikh elected to Congress

On January 3, 1957 Dalip Singh Saund is sworn in as the congressional representative of California’s 29th district. Known to many as “Judge,” and also nicknamed “the Peacemaker,” he is the first Asian, first Indian American, first Sikh and first follower of a non-Abrahamic religion to be elected to the United States Congress.

Born and raised in Punjab while India was under British rule, Saund attended the University of Punjab and was active in the independence movement led by Mohandas Gandhi. He enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley in 1920, earning a PhD in mathematics four years later. He married and moved to a ranch in Westmoreland, California, getting a friend to sign the deed for him in order to circumvent a state law that prohibited Asians from owning land. His time as a farmer, witnessing the struggles of his neighbors during the Great Depression, made him a fan of the New Deal and a lifelong Democrat. Saund organized in favor of allowing Indians to become naturalized American citizens, which Congress finally approved in 1946. Three years later, Saund became a citizen, and the following year he ran for a judgeship. Despite facing persistent racism—one reporter asked him if he would supply turbans to all those who entered his court—he won by 13 votes.

In 1956, Saund ran for his home district’s open congressional seat. Despite a legal challenge from his Democratic primary opponent, who unsuccessfully argued that Saund had not been a citizen long enough to serve in Congress, Saund won the nomination and defeated famous female aviator Jacqueline Cochran Odlum for the seat. He credited his victory to the connections he had made in the district, particularly to small farmers and small business owners. He served three terms in Congress, where he became known as a champion of small farmers and civil rights legislation and worked to improve the United States’ relations with Mexico as well as his native India.

READ MORE: Asian American Milestones: A Timeline

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Patsy T. Mink sworn in as first Asian American woman and woman of color in Congress

Elected in 1964, Patsy T. Mink is sworn in on January 4, 1965, as the first Asian American woman and first woman of color to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Throughout her career, the U.S. representative for Hawaii was a strong supporter of civil and women’s rights, as well as an advocate for children, labor unions and education. Serving as a member of the Committee for Education and Labor, Mink was vocal in her opposition to the Vietnam War and was a supporter of a national daycare system, Head Start and the Women’s Educational Equity Act.

Mink, who co-founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus in 1994, was a key author and sponsor of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which outlawed sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal funding.

”It’s rare as a legislator that you fight for legislation you believe in and stay around or live long enough to see it come to fruition,” she told a group of top women basketball players in 1995.

The daughter of second-generation Japanese immigrants, she was the first Japanese American admitted to the Hawaii bar in 1953 and the first woman to serve in the Hawaii territorial House of Representatives in 1956. Mink served in Congress from 1965 to 1977, and following an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid, she was appointed assistant secretary of state for oceans and international, environmental and scientific affairs under the Jimmy Carter administration from 1977-1978.

After her time in the Carter administration, Mink continued to work in public service, including as a member of the Honolulu City Council and as founder of a watchdog organization that reported on Hawaii’s state legislature. She was again elected to Congress in 1990, serving until her death at age 74 in 2002. Soon after her death, Title IX was renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.

READ MORE: Asian American Milestones: Timeline

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Proposition 187 is approved in California

Year
1994
Month Day
November 08

On November 8, 1994, 59 percent of California voters approve Proposition 187, banning undocumented immigrants from using the state’s major public services. Despite its wide margin of victory, the ballot measure never takes effect.

In 1994, California, the home of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, was not yet the Democratic stronghold many now consider it to be. A popular destination for immigrants from both Latin America and Asia, its demographics changed dramatically in the second half of the century, but neither Republicans nor Democrats won a decisive share of these newcomers’ votes. That would change after a group of Republican activists and state-level legislators, responding to the state’s economic slump and the presence of over a million undocumented immigrants, decided to launch the campaign for what became Prop 187. In the name of saving taxpayer money, the proposition prohibited the undocumented from accessing basic public services such as non-emergency health care and both primary and secondary education. It also required public servants like medical professionals and teachers to monitor and report on the immigration status of those under their charge.

Although public support was high from the start, the threat of barring over a million California residents from basic public services stirred up vocal opposition. As Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s campaign used the threat of immigration in an attempt to scare voters, 70,000 people marched against 187 in downtown Los Angeles, and 10,000 public school students walked out of class on November 2, just days before the vote. The measure’s passage on November 8 was an entirely symbolic and short-lived victory for conservatives.

Within a week, a legal challenge had prevented the new law from taking effect—it was held up in the appeals process until 1999, when a Democratic governor dropped the state’s appeal. Studies have since shown that Proposition 187 played a key role in galvanizing immigrants’ rights activists and pushing Latinx and Asian voters away from the California Republican Party. Over the next decade, 66 percent of newly-registered California voters were Latinx and another 23 percent were Asian. In the same period, Republicans went from holding roughly half of elected offices in the state to less than a quarter. California has since formally repealed Prop 187 and enacted some of the United States’ most sweeping protections for the undocumented.

READ MORE: US Immigration Timeline

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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signed into law

Year
1990
Month Day
July 26

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the most sweeping affirmation of rights for the disabled in American history at the time, into law.

As disability rights attorney Arlene Mayerson would later write, the story of the ADA began “when people with disabilities began to challenge societal barriers that excluded them from their communities, and when parents of children with disabilities began to fight against the exclusion and segregation of their children.” Activists explicitly compared their struggle to the Civil Rights movement, arguing that without federal requirements in place, the disabled faced discrimination both as patrons of public spaces and businesses and in seeking employment. In 1986, the National Council on Disability, an independent government agency, issued a report that reached the same conclusion, highlighting the many gaps in federal law that made full participation in society and equal opportunities for employment impossible for many disabled Americans.

Thanks largely to the lobbying efforts of Patrisha Wright, cofounder of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, federal legislation similar to a version of the Civil Rights Act for the disabled gained support in the late 80s. The eventual bill, the ADA, covered a wide range of physical and mental disabilities. The bulk of the act provides legal recourse against employers who discriminate against the disabled and set standards of access to public buildings and public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, etc.). It also established federal laws regarding service animals, among other things. 

In March of 1990, a group of disability rights activists staged the Capitol Crawl, in which disabled people pulled themselves up all 100 steps of the Capitol building in order to highlight the nation’s lack of accessibility. Despite pressure from some church groups, who felt the ADA unfairly burdened them, the bill passed the House by unanimous voice vote and the Senate 76-6, paving the way for its signing on July 26 by President Bush, who said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

READ MORE: When the ‘Capitol Crawl’ Dramatized the Need for Americans with Disabilities Act

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Clean Air Act becomes law

On December 17, 1963, one of the first major pieces of environmental legislation in the United States becomes law. The Clean Air Act empowers federal and state agencies to research and regulate air pollution, marking a major expansion of government efforts to fight back against the damage being done to the climate.

A 1955 law, the Air Pollution Control Act, had allocated $15 million to the study of air pollution across the country. As the federal government and the states conducted this research, it became clear that further legislation would be needed. After passing through Congress relatively swiftly, a stronger act was signed into law on December 17, 1963 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had been in power for less than a month following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The landmark act and its subsequent amendments—updates were passed in 1967, 1970, 1977 and 1990—comprise some of the most comprehensive air-quality legislation in the world. Shortly after its creation in 1970, the EPA began using its powers under the CAA to set quality standards for areas affected by air pollution, and it has subsequently been invoked to ban specific harmful chemicals and tackle specific environmental problems such as acid rain or the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which directly contributed to the “hole” in the Ozone Layer. Though there is a very long way to go, national emissions dropped 63% between 1980 and 2015, despite overall economic growth and an increase in the number of miles driven over that time, thanks largely to the provisions of the Clean Air Act and its successors.

READ MORE: Climate Change History

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Clean Water Act becomes law

Year
1972
Month Day
October 18

The Clean Water Act becomes law on October 18, 1972. After centuries of reckless treatment of American rivers, streams, lakes and bays, the landmark act institutes strict regulations on pollution and quality controls for the nation’s waters for the first time in its history.

The ’60s had been marked by some truly horrific revelations regarding water pollution. A 1968 survey revealed that pollution in the Chesapeake Bay resulted in millions of dollars of lost revenue for fisherman, while a 1969 study found that bacteria levels in the Hudson River to be at 170 times the legal limit. The same year, pollution from local food processing plants killed 26 million fish in one lake in Florida, the largest fish kill on record, and an oil slick resulted in an infamous fire on the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland. When President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, it was clear that water pollution would be one of its top priorities.

Though Nixon was generally very proactive on environmental issues, he vetoed the Clean Water Act, even after it sailed through both houses of Congress, on the grounds that its price tag was too high. The legislature overruled his veto the following morning, and the bill became law on October 18, 1972. The CWA mandated the protection of any waters in the country with a “significant nexus” to navigable waters. It established a framework for identifying, licensing, and enforcing standards on originators of “point source pollution,” contamination stemming from a single point like a factory or sewage treatment plant. It also contained many other provisions for finding, regulating and cleaning up water pollution, giving most of these responsibilities to the recently-created EPA. 

Since the CWA took effect, levels of pollution have greatly decreased, although many environmentalists believe it did not do enough to control non-point source pollution, the kind of contamination that cannot be traced back to a single origin. Though the CWA clearly had a positive impact, a high percentage of American waterways still do not meet the water quality standards it set forth. 

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Endangered Species Act signed into law

On December 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon signs the Endangered Species Act into law. The act, which Nixon called for the previous year, is considered one of the most significant and influential environmental laws in American history.

The government started taking action to protect endangered species in the early 1900s, as it became apparent that hunting, industry and deforestation were capable of wiping out entire species. The near-extinction of the bison, once extremely common in North America, provided ample evidence that such protections were necessary, as did the death of the last passenger pigeon in 1901. Early acts of Congress focused mostly on animals that were commonly hunted, and although the Department of the Interior began publishing a list of endangered species in 1967, it did not have the adequate powers to help animals in need.

READ MORE: How Nixon Became the Unlikely Champion of the Endangered Species Act

Recognizing the need for proactive legislation, Nixon asked Congress to expand protections. The result was the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Among other things, it mandated that the federal government keep a list of all species in need of protection, prohibited federal agencies from jeopardizing such species or their habitats, and empowered the government to do more to protect wildlife. Though the Act only applied to the actions of the federal government, it was wildly successful. In its first 30 years, the less than one percent of the plants and animals added to the Endangered Species List went extinct, while more than 100 showed a 90 percent recovery rate. Over 200,000 acres of crucial habitats have also been protected under the act. The ESA is widely regarded as the strongest endangered species law in the world, and one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation in history.

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Environmental Protection Agency opens

On December 2, 1970, a new federal agency opens its doors. Created in response to the dawning realization that human activity can have major effects on the planet, the Environmental Protection Agency heralded a new age of government action on behalf of the environment.

Concerns about pollution and other environmental issues began creeping into the American consciousness in the 1950s and 60s. The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was a watershed moment for American environmental awareness, as were a major oil spill that affected California beaches and the burning of Ohio’s heavily-polluted Cuyahoga River in 1969. That same year, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandated that government agencies compile environmental statistics and produce environmental impact statements before proceeding with projects that could affect the environment. Given the number of offices across the executive branch that were now tasked with enforcing environmental regulations, President Richard Nixon decided in July of 1970 to create a single agency to deal with environmental issues, and the EPA was born.

READ MORE: The Shocking River Fire That Fueled the Creation of the EPA

The EPA was flooded with resumes from environmentalists excited by the idea that the government would finally act on their concerns. It opened with 5,8000 employees and a budget of $1.4 billion, led by former Justice Department lawyer William Ruckelshaus. Conscious of the importance of establishing the new administration’s authority, Ruckelshaus acted aggressively to enforce the Clean Water Act, secure a ban on the pesticide DDT, and prosecute the corporations responsible for polluting the Cuyahoga. Thanks to his efforts, the EPA has maintained its role as a strong enforcer, and the position of EPA Administrator is considered cabinet-level despite the EPA not technically being a cabinet agency. Like all federal agencies, however, it is only as powerful as the executive allows—after years of relatively aggressive action on climate change, the EPA deleted almost all references to the global climate crisis from its website after President Donald Trump took office.

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George W. Bush describes Iraq, Iran and North Korea as “axis of evil”

On January 29, 2002, in his first State of the Union address since the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush describes Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”

Just over a year into his presidency and several months into a war which would eventually become the longest in American history, Bush identified the three countries as the major nodes of a wide-ranging and highly dangerous network of terrorists and other bad actors threatening the United States. The speech outlined the logic behind Bush’s “War on Terror,” a series of military engagements which would define U.S. foreign policy for the next two decades.

Bush speechwriter David Frum is credited with coining the term “axis of evil,” which was meant to evoke the Axis powers against which the United States and its allies fought in World War II. The Bush administration wanted to emphasize the outstanding threat posed by these three “terror states,” arguing that each was in the process of building weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. Bush’s father, former president George H.W. Bush, had invaded Iraq in 1990 after repelling the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait, but left Saddam Hussein in power. 

After 9/11, George W. Bush’s administration waited less than a month before invading Afghanistan and deposing the Taliban regime there. It was not long before Bush turned his attention to “regime change” in Iraq. Although there were no direct links between Iraq, Iran and North Korea—Iraq and Iran, in fact, were commonly understood to be geopolitical enemies—the concept of an “axis of evil” united in its desire to harm Americans proved useful to those making the case for a second invasion of Iraq.

READ MORE: A Timeline of the U.S.-Led War on Terror

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